We are heading out of Moscow towards Kostroma on the Northern rim of Russia’s Golden Circle region, a recently-coined named for an area rich in Russian history, gilded onion-shaped domes and restored historic buildings. Despite deciding not to buy higher quality maps in a Moscow bookstore, we hope our 1:2 000 000 map aided by high detail on our GPS will make navigation easy.
Our route out of Moscow looks straight-forward. We’ll head East around the outskirts from our host’s apartment in the North, avoiding highways and weaving across some of the more major secondary roads. We are leaving on the Saturday of a long weekend but expect traffic to be light, especially at 8am when we start cycling. Waking to fine weather all the odds seemed stacked in our favour as after only a few kilometres we are on well-paved and quiet forested roads. Unfortunately that wasn’t to last.
As the day proceeds we find ourselves on increasingly busy roads where we struggle to find space to cycle. While the traffic is far more sedate than our experiences of cycling in Turkey, it is still draining as we navigate further out of the city.
At one point the GPS routes us onto a quiet road that seems like a welcome break from traffic but eventually turns into an unsealed road, then a dirt road and finally a walking path before amazingly we emerge into a small village to be met by the solemn faces of a few local residents. I wonder, even if we had been wearing pirate costumes would they have cracked a smile?
Our evening camp spot is easily located in the dense roadside forest with only a few minutes of searching. Lying on a bed of soft moss we are lulled to sleep by the hiss of truck tyres on a road made wet by rain that starts just as we tuck up for the night. So ends a long and tiring 100 kilometre day that has been our first full cycling day in Russia.
Over the following days we become used to long straight roads that seem to stretch to the horizon with the only variation being a back drop of pine or beech forest and the occasional open grassed area near to small villages. The roads are largely flat with the slight rises seeming like an ocean swell that gives you a short glimpse of the surrounding terrain. Pools of standing water spread through large patches of forest making the ground unfit for camping, and we suspect it will provide a rich breeding ground for insects in the coming weeks. Some of our roads side stops are less than pleasant with even remote countryside bus stops seeming to do double duty as men’s urinals. Do Russian men have an aversion to peeing in the open forest we wonder?
One of our main challenges is locating enough water for drinking, cooking and cleaning each day. Although we carry a water filter so can use village wells without problems, we have trouble finding a well with an intact bucket for raising water. Gradually we adjust our expectations and for the first time on this trip begin to carry an additional few litres of water in a water bag every evening.
Each night we locate camp spots with surprising ease due to the combination of long days (sunset is around 9:30pm) and the wealth of forested land with roads blocked to cars but perfect for a bicycle. From quiet forest glades to open fields to deep dark pine forests our camp sites feel truly remote, with only the noise of passing cars to remind us of the closeness of civilisation.
Our fears over the various summertime biting insects seem to be unfounded as we sit outside comfortably into the evening. We think that the sub zero night time temperatures might have something to do with their absence. We huddle together in the coldest pre-dawn hours waiting for the first rays of sun to hit the tent.
After our familiarity with Turkish cuisine we are keen to sample some Russian snacks and quickly identify tasty meat and onion filled pastries similar to Indian samosas as favourites, although the doughy savoury donuts aren’t half bad either.
We enter our first canteen-style cafe in Teykovo where we sample our first typical Russian dishes, both managing to select a full range of Pork-filled dishes. Digesting our food we wonder why we never knew how amazing Russian food is and are confident that our stomachs will remain happy over the next few months.
The same afternoon as we are leaving Teykovo, we cycle freely through an army base but encounter a military road block a few kilometres further on. The friendly soldiers send us on a detour back to the town which we had left 10km earlier. With the tanks and tyre spikes receding behind us we wonder if the base we cycled through is a decoy and the army really lives in an underground bunker complex?
Much to our surprise we see a number of other cycle tourists, all Russian we assume, as they are carrying only weekend camping gear. Chatting with one group in the pretty town of Yuryev-Polskiy, they suggest we visit a few other local sites but in Russia even a small detour means at least a days cycling and we don’t manage to fit their suggestions into our route. It is encouraging to meet other cyclists and see how enthusiastic they are towards camping and cycling in Russia.
On our fourth day out from Moscow our paper map shows its first sign of weakness as we follow what seems to be a through road only to have the GPS disagree and tell us it is a dead end and that we must follow a dirt track for 50km instead. Weighing up our options we discover we can take 10km of dirt track then back track through a nearby town which we decide is preferable to the possibility of a full day cycling off road. Our chosen dirt track has a surprising amount of traffic considering it wouldn’t look out of place in an army tank practice route. One car stops for photos with me while the majority of drivers pass without even a second glance. We wonder if maybe they see fully loaded cyclists on this road every day.
A detour to the village of Ples again reduces our faith in our paper map as it shows a through road from the town heading North East, but the road we are following ends at the river Volga. The GPS suggests we backtrack 20km and continue on the main road which after eating a late breakfast and confirming that there isn’t a boatman willing to take us across, we duly do. Emma’s impression of Ples verbatim from the daily journal is “…big dead empty tourist village with fake old stuff”, but maybe she was just annoyed.
As we backtrack towards Kostroma, we are stopped in Privolzhsk by our first English-speaking local since Moscow. He introduces himself as a reporter from a local radio station and quizzes us about statistics from our trip so he can include a report about us for his show later in the day. We wonder what the local response to this news would be. After many circles, minor roads and backtracks, we will finally be on the road to Kostroma when he airs his report.